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Comics can also be documentary

In her latest book, U. of C. professor Hillary Chute establishes a new field of study: "drawn witnessing."



From the inaugural issue of the Illustrated London News in 1842 to the first chapter of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning serial Maus in 1980, comics have had a long affiliation with documentary and reporting. So why isn't the illustrated medium associated with nonfiction as reflexively as news articles and photographs? In Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute argues for recognizing comics as a substantial documentarian form that "endeavors to express history."

"In its succession of replete frames," Chute writes, "comics calls attention to itself, specifically, as evidence." She explicitly connects Spanish painter Francisco Goya (identified as a "foundational artist-reporter") and his spellbinding series of prints "The Disasters of War" to comics, and places both within the "traditions of drawn witnessing." Goya's 19th-century depictions of rape, mutilation, and civilian death are widely understood as a method of war reporting that emphasizes the impact of conflict on individuals. Chute establishes the painter's connection to comics by pointing out his influence on such artists as Spiegelman and Robert Crumb. She also sees Goya's shambolic line work in Maus, whose account of the Holocaust "cemented comics as a serious medium for engaging history." Before launching in Spiegelman's and Françoise Mouly's journal Raw, Maus appeared as a separate three-page strip in the underground anthology Funny Aminals in 1972, the same year Japanese artist Keiji Nakazawa finished Ore Wa Mita.

Ore Wa Mita ("I Saw It," the title of which is traced to Goya) is an eyewitness account of Hiroshima's horrors from the perspective of a survivor. "Shaped by the realities of war, Nakazawa's manga established a new imaginary, a new culture, for nonfiction manga in Japan," observes Chute. She heralds the birth of "first-person witness" comics here, and examines Nakazawa's life and his impact on Japan's pervasive "culture of silence" around the bomb. Ambitious tomes like 2014's Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present reduce Nakazawa to mere paragraphs, presumably for lack of space, so Chute's deep dig is welcome and integral. Though reporting has long been celebrated as a vehicle for transparency, graphic narratives like Nakazawa's still battle for position among "instruments of witness."

The heavily footnoted Disaster Drawn likely won't find the large audience that it demands. It's rigid and clinical, which is unfortunate, because the underlying message is important. Joe Sacco's jolting portrayal of a Bosnian massacre appears on the book's cover; his comics "rethink and rework absence and silence in presenting witness on the page," writes Chute. And his remarks at a 2012 University of Chicago conference get to the heart of Disaster Drawn. "If you are depicting something graphically and it has a pretense to journalism, the idea is to get the reader there somehow," said Sacco. "I want the reader to open up the book and just immediately be there. I think [that is] the power of image."  v

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